How to practice acceptance

Getting to a place of acceptance can be mentally liberating. It allows us to be in a more balanced, compassionate, and action-oriented space.

In an essay by James Herbert and Lynn Brandsma, psychological acceptance is defined as “active embracing of subjective experience, particularly distressing experiences”.

Understanding the concept of acceptance is one thing, but how do we bring it into play? How do we embrace unwanted experiences? It might be hard to see how we can exercise acceptance when we want things to be different.

An important first step is awareness: To acknowledge how you’re feeling. You can start by describing your emotions and bodily sensations. Grab a pen and write them down. This may feel difficult at first but it disrupts the autopilot, and can slowly transform the way you respond.

For example, you might be stuck in traffic, about to miss an important meeting. And there’s nothing you can do about it. Here’s an opportunity to practice acceptance. Notice how you feel, your automatic thoughts, and any sensations that come up. You might be feeling stressed and this doesn’t go away. That’s okay — notice it linger. Don’t try to force yourself to feel differently, just observe.

A brief mindfulness-based exercise

A powerful way to tap into acceptance is to anchor your attention in the present moment, be fully in your body, and slowly expand your awareness.

This brief mindfulness-based cognitive therapy exercise may help:

  1. Stop what you’re doing and bring your awareness to what you’re experiencing in the present moment.
  2. Focus your attention on your breath as you inhale and exhale. Don’t try to control or lengthen it. Notice the sensations it creates around your nostrils, the tip of your nose, and upper lip.
  3. Bring your awareness to any unpleasant thoughts or feelings that you may have the urge to avoid. Observe their characteristics in a detached way.
  4. Repeat to yourself: “I give myself permission to actively accept this and observe what happens…” or “Let go of the struggle and accept…” You can say this out loud or repeat it silently in your mind.
  5. Expand your awareness, throughout your body as a whole, and gradually back to your environment and any tasks at hand. Slowly resume any activities you were engaged in.

This technique incorporates elements from mindfulness and acceptance-based therapies. You can practice it briefly or use it as a longer 10-to-20-minute meditation.

It can be helpful to think of acceptance as a skill, which can be developed over time. The more we do it, the more natural and true it feels to us. Be patient with yourself. My ability to accept has continued to improve, both through experience and intentional practice.

In the words of Thomas M. Sterner, “Try to look at situations that normally stress you out as an opportunity to play the game.”


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